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Geshe (Tib. dge bshes, short for dge-ba'i bshes-gnyen, "virtuous friend"; translation of Skt. kalyāņamitra) is a Tibetan Buddhist academic degree for monks and nuns. The degree is emphasized primarily by the Gelug lineage, but is also awarded in the Sakya and Bön traditions.[1][2]


The title Geshe was first applied to esteemed Kadampa masters such as Geshe Chekawa Yeshe Dorje (1102-1176), who composed an important lojong text called Seven Points of Mind Training and Geshe Langri Tangpa (dGe-bshes gLang-ri Thang-pa, 1054-1123).

The geshe curriculum represents an adaptation of subjects studied at Indian Buddhist monastic universities such as Nālandā. These centers were destroyed by Islamic invaders of India, leaving Tibet to continue the tradition. It first developed within the Sakya monastic lineage, where it was known as ka-shi ("four subjects") or ka-chu ("ten subjects"). The Sakyas also granted degrees at the conclusion of these studies, on the basis of proficiency in dialectical ritualized debate. In Tsongkhapa's time the Sakya degree was awarded at Sangphu, Kyormolung and Dewachen (later Ratö) monasteries.

The geshe degree flowered under the Gelug monastic lineage. Under Gelug domination, monks from various monastic lineages would receive training as geshes through the great Gelug monasteries. Gelugpa geshes often went on to study at one of Lhasa's tantric colleges, Gyütö or Gyüme. (The tantric colleges also grant a "geshe" title for scholarship in the tantras.)

Under Sakya and Gelug influence, the Kagyu and Nyingma monastic lineages developed their own systems of scholarly education. Their schools grant the degree of ka-rabjampa ("one with unobstructed knowledge of scriptures") as well as the title Khenpo, which the Gelug tradition reserves for abbots. The course of study which prevails in Kagyu and Nyingma circles emphasizes commentary over debate, and focuses on a somewhat wider selection of classics (with accordingly less detail). It ideally lasts for nine years, concluding with a three-year, three-month meditation retreat.

In April 2011, the Institute for Buddhist Dialectical Studies (IBD) in Dharamsala, India, conferred the degree of geshe on Venerable Kelsang Wangmo, a German nun, thus making her the world's first female geshe.[3][4]

In 2013, Tibetan women were able to take the geshe exams for the first time.[5]

In 2016, twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns became the first Tibetan women to earn geshe degrees.[6][7]

Conferral of the Degree

The Gelug curriculum, lasts for 11 years, leading up to the Tsorampa degree. Geshe's who want to go further then continue for a six year course, with the last of the 11 years counting as the first of the six year course.

So, to get the highest Lharampa degree, they normally have a minimum of 16 years study.

Description Historic footage of the Dalai Lama in his final examinations for the Geshe Lharampa degree, in Tibet, at the young age of 23

Quoting from "The Gelug Monastic Education System"[8]

"The five main subjects are as follows.

  • Prajnaparamita (phar-phyin), far-reaching discriminating awareness, is the study of the stages and paths of mind (sa-lam) needed for the realization of voidness, liberation, and enlightenment. It is based on Filigree of Realizations (mNgon-rtogs-rgyan, Skt. Abhisamayalamkara) by Maitreya (rGyal-ba Byams-pa). Although Maitreya’s text is written from a Prasangika-Madhyamaka (dBu-ma thal-‘gyur-pa) viewpoint, its twenty-one Indian commentaries are written from the Svatantrika-Madhyamaka (dBu-ma rang-rgyud-pa) point of view, and most prominently its Yogachara-Svatantrika (rNal-‘byor spyod-pa’i rang-rgyud-pa) division.
  • Madhyamaka (dbu-ma), the middle way, is the study of voidness according to the Prasangika-Madhyamaka view. The Svatantrika division studied in conjunction with this is Sautrantika-Svatantrika (mDo-sde spyod-pa’i rang-rgyud-pa). Madhyamaka study is based on A Supplement to (Nagarjuna’s "Root Verses on) the Middle Way" (dBu-ma-la ‘jug-pa, Skt. Madhyamakavatara) by Chandrakirti (Zla-ba grags-pa, dPal-ldan grags-pa).
  • Pramana (tshad-ma), valid cognition, is the study of the proofs for the validity of such essential points as the Three Supreme Gems, rebirth, and omniscience. It is based on A Commentary to (Dignaga’s "Compendium of) Validly Cognizing Minds" (Tshad-ma rnam-‘grel, Skt. Pramanavarttika) by Dharmakirti (Chos-kyi grags-pa). Several of its chapters are from the Sautrantika viewpoint and others the Chittamatra.
  • Abhidharma (mngon-par chos, mdzod), special topics of knowledge, covers the physical and mental constituents of limited beings, rebirth states, karma, disturbing emotions and attitudes, paths to liberation, and so on. It is based on A Treasure House of Special Topics of Knowledge (Chos mngon-pa'i mdzod, Skt. Abhidharmakosha) by Vasubandhu (dByigs-gnyen) and is from the Vaibhashika viewpoint.
  • Vinaya (‘dul-ba), rules of discipline, concerns the monastic vows. It is based on The Vinaya Sutra (‘Dul-ba’i mdo, Skt. Vinayasutra) by Gunaprabha (Yon-tan ‘od).

In addition, monastics study interpretable and definitive meanings (drang-nges) for further detail about the Chittamatra and Madhyamaka views. It is based on The Essence of Good Explanation Concerning Interpretable and Definitive Meanings (Drang-nges legs-bshad snying-po) by Tsongkhapa (rJe Tsong-kha-pa Blo-bzang grags-pa) (1357-1419)."

The courses center around textual memorization and debate, which is done in a ritualized way clapping their hands after each point made. It is taught through the medium of the Tibetan language.

Each year an examination is held for those who have completed their studies. In it their performance is evaluated by the abbot of the particular college. The topics for their dialectical examination are drawn from the whole course of study and the topic to be debated is selected by the abbot on the spot, so that students have no chance to do specific preparation. Thus, it is a real test of a student's abilities and the depth of his study.

In the Gelug school, the degree may not be earned by laymen (though a bhikkhu can hand back their robes at any time, and some monk recipients later give up their robes).

Until recently, it could not be earned by women (including nuns). The first geshe-ma degree was conferred to a German nun, Kelsang Wangmo, in 2011.[8][9][10]


The Geshe curriculum consists of the "Collected Topics" (Tibetan: བསྡུས་གྲྭ་Wylie: bsdus-grwa) which were preliminary to the syllabus proper, as well as the five major topics, which form the syllabus proper.

The exoteric study of Buddhism is generally organized into "five topics", listed as follows with the primary Indian source texts for each:

  1. Abhidharma (Higher Knowledge, Wylie Tib.: mdzod)
  2. Prajñā Pāramitā (Perfection of Wisdom, Wylie Tib.: phar-phyin)
  3. Madhyamaka (Middle Way, Wylie Tib.: dbu-ma)
  4. Logic (pramāṇa Wylie Tib.: tshad-ma)
    • Treatise on Valid Cognition (Pramāṇavarttika) by Dharmakīrti
    • Compendium on Valid Cognition (Pramāṇasamuccaya) by Dignāga
  5. Vowed Morality (vinaya, Wylie Tib.: 'dul-ba)
    • The Root of the Vinaya (Vinaya-mūla-sūtra, Dülwa Do Tsawa, Wylie Tib.: 'dul-ba mdo rtsa-ba) by the Pandita Gunaprabha



  1. Staff. "The Passing of Ven. Geshe Gyeltsen - 1924 / 2009". Urban Dharma: Buddhism in America. Retrieved 2010-02-04. 
  2. Quotation: The geshe degree in the Gelug school is comparable to a western doctorate in Buddhist philosophy. The difference is that it usually takes more than twenty years to complete.
  3. Haas, Michaela (18 May 2011). "2,500 Years After The Buddha, Tibetan Buddhists Acknowledge Women". Huffington Post. Retrieved 2018-01-18. 
  4. "The Joy of Study: An Interview with Geshe Kelsang Wangmo" (Interview). Archived from the original on 2016-03-04. 
  5. Haas, Michaela (2013-07-07). "Buddhist nun professors or none?". The Washington Post. Archived from the original on 2013-06-07. 
  6. "Tibetan Buddhist Nuns Make History: Congratulations Geshema Nuns! - The Tibetan Nuns Project". Tibetan Nuns Project. 2016-07-14. Retrieved 2018-01-18. 
  7. Meade Sperry, Rod (2016-07-15). "Twenty Tibetan Buddhist nuns are first ever to earn Geshema degrees". Lion's Roar. Retrieved 2018-01-18. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 Rinpoche II, Tsenzhab Serkong. "Overview of the Gelug Monastic Education System". Berzin, Alexander (trans.). Study Buddhism. Retrieved 2016-06-06.  Translated and compiled by Alexander Berzin, September 2003.
  9. Quotation: The monastic education system in the Gelug monasteries covers five major topics, based on five great Indian scriptural texts studied through the medium of logic and debate – "tsennyi" (mtshan-nyid, definitions) in Tibetan.
  10. In December 2005 Dalai Lama said that talks was going on with the Department of religion to start honoring Buddhist nuns with the title Geshema — Buddhism is All We Have - Dalai Lama

See also

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